Saturday, June 15, 2013

On "The Sea Is My Brother" by Jack Kerouac ***

I heard parts of this early Kerouac novel read in a documentary about the author some twenty years ago when I first became a Kerouac fan and read nearly everything by him that I could get my hands on. I was saddened that this was not available to me or to a wide audience generally. Well, no more. Someone has decided to publish it. Other reviews I've read for this have said it is interesting only because it is Kerouac--a piece of juvenilia that precedes even Town and the City--and would not stand up as a great work on its own; Kerouac himself would have acknowledged so, for he never sought publication for it.

I think, however, that's it actually a passable work of fiction, and it has a lot of the same things going for it that Kerouac's greater works do. I even prefer it to some of Kerouac's late work. Yes, there are faults (the speaking tags are sometimes comical, as if pulled from a thesaurus just to avoid the word "said"). But Kerouac also carries the kind of contagious enthusiasm for life and ideas that makes On the Road and some of those early and midcareer books so compellingly readable. I want to know more about this life Kerouac writes of; I want to be on this adventure with him.

The adventure is one that involves a merchant marine vessel. Wesley is a sailor on leave, one who spends his entire paycheck on a few days of boozing and partying and who is down to his last few pennies. He befriends a gal at a bar, meets up with her friends, and spends the night. One of these friends he meets is Bill Palmer, a teacher at Columbia University. The two go out carousing the next day, and Bill, taken in by Wesley's charm, decides that he wants a life at sea also. He arranges to leave his teaching position, and the two go off to the harbor to sign up for the next merchant vessel going out and to get Bill's passport in order. Wesley blows off a date with the gal he met the night before, a maddeningly typical move by one of those maddeningly popular guys. Various political and philosophical discussions are engaged in at bars as they wait to ship off. And then, Bill gets on the ship--Wesley momentarily disappears to deal with a former flame--and then away they go.

This plot summary perhaps shows why Kerouac's work is so difficult to adapt to screen; the pleasure is in the joy of life more than in finding out the next plot twist.

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